The Land of Canaan: A Gift or Reward?

*This is not a definitive answer on the topic but I hope it is useful food for thought.

The Land of Canaan: A Gift or Reward?

The full question:

According to Deuteronomy, is the land of Canaan to be a gift or a reward for obedience?


Deuteronomy is a vital piece in both the Pentateuch, and in the Canon of Scripture. This is because the people of God stand on the doorstep of the Promised Land, ready to enter and so fulfil one of the key promises of the covenant between God and Abraham. But as they stand there, preparing to enter, the question arises: how do the people receive this wonderful Promised Land? Is it a gift, freely given? Or a reward earned through obedience? The answer to this question is vital, as it lays the foundation for the relationship between God and His people. This essay will seek to explore how Deuteronomy handles the land, and thus establish whether it is a gift or a reward.


A land flowing with milk and honey,[1] where God’s people can eat their fill,[2] and where God’s eyes will always be on them.[3] This is the wonderful picture that Deuteronomy paints of the Promised Land. It is no wonder that it was their greatest hope and desire to inhabit this incredible paradise. This wonderful land is one of the key themes of Deuteronomy,[4] with Deuteronomy having a highly developed theology regarding the land.[5]

How, then, were they to receive it? As a gift, freely given? Or as a reward for diligent obedience? This is one of the key questions of Deuteronomy, as it shows who God is and how He relates with His people.[6] It is also vital for building an accurate biblical framework of promise and fulfilment.[7] Indeed, it has been stated that “Deuteronomy is dominated from beginning to end by the idea of the land which is to be taken in possession.”[8]

With the land playing such a crucial role in Deuteronomy it is vital to understand how the Israelites were to receive it: as a gift given, or a reward earned. This essay will seek to weigh up the evidence for both options, and then reach a verdict based on the arguments.


2.1 The Promise of Reward

The case for the land being a reward is based strongly on passages such as Deuteronomy 4:1; 6:17-19; 8:1 and 16:20, which suggest that the land will be given as a reward for obedience. The verses seem to link the Israelites obeying with God blessing them[9] and giving them the land.[10] The phrase “that you may” appears over and over in Deuteronomy, which strongly suggests that there is a link between obeying and receiving. As Von Rad notes, “Israel is to observe the commandments in order that he may enter the good land.”[11] Indeed, this promise of a reward is not an empty promise: while the first generation is excluded from the land due to their disobedience, Joshua and Caleb are both allowed to enter due to their obedience.[12] This promise of reward[13] seems to demonstrate that the land is indeed a reward for obedience.

The glaring issue with this position is that Deuteronomy seems to be working on the assumption of human failure.[14] Indeed, God says “For I know what they are inclined to do,”[15] referring to Israel’s rebellion against Him. And yet, despite this failure of humanity, it is clear that God will achieve his purposes. But if, as Von Rad claims, there is a “declension from grace into law,”[16] then how will this be? God is restricted by human success: he can only allow them to enter if they obey. And further, he must bar them if they do not. But how can this be the case if God already knows that they will not obey, but will allow them to enter regardless? If it truly is a declension into law[17] then Israel has no hope of entering. But this cannot be the case, and so it must be grace throughout, from beginning to end.[18]

Nevertheless, taken purely by itself, with no wider Deuteronic context, these verses may indeed lead someone to conclude that the land is given as a reward for obedience.

2.2 The Threat of Removal

Coupled with this promise of reward is the constant threat of removal. This is seen in passages such as Deuteronomy 28:63-64,[19] [20] where God threatens to remove[21] the Israelites from the land if they disobey.[22] The language is “stinging and emphatic,”[23] and highlights the seriousness of breaking the covenant. The land must be “occupied and retained through obedience and conquest,”[24] and if it is not then it will be “withheld or withdrawn.”[25] This seems to be a strong argument for it being a reward, as if the land is a gift, then how can God take it back? A gift given typically becomes the property of the receiver, to do with as they please. Therefore, this is a strong argument for it being a reward.

2.3 The Reality of Exclusion

But more than just a threat of removal, there is the genuine reality of exclusion. This is seen in the reality of the first generation of Israelites being excluded from the land.[26] [27] As Martin notes, “the idolatrous and unbelieving first generation…failed to enter and settle into the land God had given them”[28] – due to their disobedience. In fact, even Moses was excluded due to their disobedience. This shows that it is not just a threat of removal, but a reality of exclusion. This is a significant point, as if it were just a threat then one might suggest that the threat is theoretical, and therefore makes no impact on whether the land is a gift or reward. But the fact that some of God’s people were excluded is a persuasive argument that the land is earned on merit.[29]

2.4 Concluding Remarks

It seems clear from what has been covered so far that there is indeed an expectation of obedience linked with the land. And further, that this obedience[30] will impact in some way on the Israelites.[31] Does this mean that the land is given as a reward? Not necessarily. Indeed, there a raft of persuasive evidence suggesting that the land is actually a gift. That is where this essay will turn now.


3.1 Given not Earned

One of the most persuasive arguments for the land being a gift is the constant reference to God ‘giving’ the land. Indeed, Deuteronomy is saturated by verses stating that God is ‘giving’ the land to the Israelites,[32] [33] with it appearing 34 times.[34] As both Kaiser and Miller helpfully note, Deuteronomy refers to the Promised Land eighteen times, and in fifteen of these there is an emphasis on the fact that God gave the land to the Israelites.[35] [36] As Brueggemann says, “Israel was clear that it did not take the land either by power or stratagem.”[37] If it were to be a reward for obedience, then one might expect it to be ‘earned,’ rather than ‘given.’ But God is constantly said to be giving Israel the land. The fact that God gives the land, rather than the Israelites earning the land is important in establishing how Deuteronomy treats the land.

Of particular note is the fact that both the first and last reference to the land in Deuteronomy treats it as a gift. In both Deuteronomy 1:8 and 34:4 God is said to have sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give the land to their descendants. It is significant that both passages imply that the land is a gift because it is both the first and the final word on the land in Deuteronomy. Therefore, one might expect that if it was to be a reward earned, this would come across in these verses. While not in itself a defining argument, it nevertheless forms part of the case for it being a gift.

3.2 An Inheritance

Another argument for the land being a gift is the fact that it is often described as Israel’s inheritance.[38] This conveys the implication of it being a “divine gift to an unworthy people.”[39] This is seen in passages such as Deuteronomy 4:21; 12:9; 18:1-2[40] and 26:1. There can be no doubt that the land is to be an inheritance for God’s people.[41] Thus, to suggest that an inheritance is a reward is to misunderstand the concept of an inheritance. One does not earn an inheritance. Rather they receive it because of family ties outside of their control. Similarly, God’s people do nothing to earn the land, but merely inherit it due to their familial relationship with Abraham, and their bestowed status as God’s people.

3.3 Removal and Restoral

One possible argument against the land being a gift is the threat of removal. While there is indeed the threat of the Israelites being removed from the land, there is also the promise of them being restored back to the land. As Woods helpfully points out:

Deuteronomy urges Israel to fear, love and serve the Lord alone… This alone will ensure their success and well-being within the land… But Deuteronomy is equally sure that Israel will ‘fail’… However, when the blessings and curses have run their course… then God in his grace and mercy will enable them to return to him.[42]

God knows His people and knows that they are “stubborn”[43] and will “whore after foreign gods.”[44] As such, His plan for them encompasses both their sin and removal, and their restoral to the land. This is seen particularly in Deuteronomy 31, where God identifies their sin, but also promises to bring His people back into the land.

This is important because it suggests that any punishment for disobedience is not permanent: there will be (in the long term) a renewal, regardless of their faithfulness.[45] If the removal of the Israelites from the land was permanent, then one might suggest that the land is indeed earned (and kept) through obedience. But it is not. Rather, it is restored out of God’s kindness, suggesting that it is a gift freely given.[46] This is indeed a persuasive argument for the land being a gift, because if it were a reward then there would be no promise of (undeserved) restoral.

3.4 The Key Verses (9:4-6)

Having weighed up many of the arguments for the land being treated as a gift, it is time to turn to the most persuasive point. That is, Deuteronomy 9:46, which is undoubtedly the key to understanding how Deuteronomy treats the land.

These verses clearly express that the land is not being given as a reward for obedience.[47] Quite the opposite, the Israelites are told to “not say in your heart… ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess the land.”[48] Further, they hear that “the Lord [their] God is not giving [them] this good land to possess because of [their] righteousness.”[49] This is by far the most clearly expressed answer in all of Deuteronomy as to whether the land is a gift or a reward. Three times in these verses it says that it has nothing to do with Israel’s righteousness.

In fact, quite the opposite: we are told that Israel “are a stubborn people.”[50] Far from earning the land as a reward for obedience, they do not deserve the land.[51] [52] Stubborn, rebellious people do not earn through obedience, but can only accept a freely given gift. There can be no doubt here: the land is a gift, not a reward for obedience, because the people are not obedient. Therefore, it cannot be a “declension from grace into law,”[53] because it is stated in no uncertain terms that Israel is not righteous. If it were indeed law not grace, then Israel would not be inheriting the land. Rather, it is God’s undeserved grace that brings Israel into the land.[54]

3.5 Concluding Remarks

As Longman and Dillard point out, “the land is repeatedly described as “the land that the God of your fathers is giving to you.””[55] Time and time again it is said to be ‘given.’ But how does this ‘given’ language fit in with the reward language discussed earlier in this essay? There seems to be a tension here in need or resolving. The tension will be explored further in the following section, but for now suffice to say that the two are not mutually exclusive: they work in unison to achieve God’s good purpose for His people. And further, they help to shine light on God’s amazing mercy and kindness.

4. Verdict

4.1 A Gift

What is the verdict then? How is the land handled in Deuteronomy: as a gift given, or as a reward earned? While there certainly seems to be evidence supporting both positions, it is hard to go past the clearly expressed picture of Deuteronomy 9:4-6. It seems clear from these verses that the land has nothing to do with the righteousness of the Israelites. And if this is the case, then it seems impossible to claim that it is a reward for obedience, as that has everything to do with righteousness. Therefore, it must be a gift freely given. As Kaiser notes, “the bible is most insistent on the fact that the land was promised to the patriarchs as a gift.”[56]

4.2 Grace and Works

But if this is the case, then how do the seemingly conflicting passages fit together? The question is actually the age-old question of grace and works. How does God’s gracious mercy fit in with the expectation that His people will obey His commands?

The answer, as shown in Deuteronomy, is that God’s grace comes first. That the land is a gracious gift is seen particularly in Deuteronomy 9:4-6. It is not being given based on their righteousness, but as a free gift. It is also highlighted by the fact that despite God knowing Israel’s wickedness, and the fact that they will rebel, He still gives them the land.[57] While it is true that the exile happens in Israel’s history[58] they are nevertheless restored back to the land. God’s grace is also highlighted in Deuteronomy 6, one of the great law/works passages. Here God gives them the commands that they are to follow in the land “that it may go well for [them].”[59] And yet even at this great moment of law giving, God says how he has already promised to give them the land.[60] Grace precedes works. The same thing is seen in Deuteronomy 3 and 4: while chapter four seems to be centred around works,[61] it is important to remember that it is preceded by chapter three, where God has reminder the Israelites of His undeserved help in their military victories. Time and time again grace is seen to come first.

How does works fit into this then? Having started with God’s grace, Deuteronomy then moves to His people’s response. Undoubtedly, they are expected to obey. But it is not because that will earn them the land, but rather out of gratitude for the freely given gift of the land. As mentioned above, this is seen in passages such as Deuteronomy 3-4 and 6. Grace comes first, and then works follow as an outpouring of gratitude. Indeed, this is the consistent message of the bible: God saves by undeserved grace, and then His people respond by obeying out of gratitude.

This, then, is how the tension is resolved in Deuteronomy: the land is a gift freely given, and then the Israelites are to obey out of gratitude for God’s undeserved kindness. Further, while the land is an unconditional gift, it comes with short-term conditions: conditions that will not ultimately remove them from the land, but that might remove them from the land in the short-term. But in the end God will give His people the land because of His mighty grace. This grace is what gives them the land, and what keeps them in the land.

A picture of this grace leading to obedience is seen strongly in Deuteronomy 7:6-11, where God’s undeserved election is to be a motivation to them to keep his commands. Indeed, “God’s gift of land was tied to his unconditional election of Israel.”[62] God does not say “I chose you because you were righteous, so continue in your righteousness.” No, he says that they were undeserving, and yet he chose them anyway. And therefore, they are to obey Him out of thankfulness. In the same way the gift of the land is to be their motivation. As Millar notes, “Yahweh has assured Israel that the Land is theirs. In his grace, he has already handed over the deeds to them. This should act as an encouragement to them to go in and possess the land.”[63] Therefore, it cannot be true that “only if Israel obeys will she actually be able to enjoy the fulfilment of the promise.”[64] Indeed, this is why Von Rad is so mistaken when he claims that it is a “declension from grace into law,”[65] as it contradicts passages such as Deuteronomy 7:6-11, where God’s election comes first, and then obedience follows out of gratitude. It also overlooks the grace of Deuteronomy 3-4, 7 and 9.[66] If the land is indeed a declension towards law, then it differs from the entire canon. Time and time again throughout Deuteronomy, and indeed the whole bible, grace is shown to come first.

4.3 Given by Grace, So Live in Faith

While the commands given by God do not govern whether the people receive the land, they do teach them how to live in the land once they receive it: the freely given gift is meant to inspire a thankful obedience. The gracious gift is to lead the Israelites to live in a way that honours God and builds up their neighbour. Living according to God’s commands “would enable Israel to enjoy to the full all the blessings of the covenant,”[67] of which the land was a major component. This is seen in passages such as Deuteronomy 5:31-33 and 11:8-9, where the Israelites are told that this is how they must live that it may go well for them. In the context of the Old Testament it seems natural that living according to God’s good plans for them would lead to them prospering. Thus, in a sense there is a double blessing for God’s people here: the gracious gift of the land, and a prosperous life that comes from obeying God out of thankfulness for the gift of the land. Therefore, the commandments are instructions to help them prosper in the land they are being freely given. As discussed above, even if they disobey and things go badly, God will ultimately restore them back to the land.

4.4 A Picture of the Gospel

One of the incredible strengths of the land being a gift is that it is a picture of God’s gracious, undeserved mercy. God knows that His people are wicked and undeserving of the land, and yet graciously gives it to them anyway. And this is a clear picture of the Gospel: God’s undeserved mercy on His undeserving people. And so consequently, one of the weaknesses of seeing the land as a reward for obedience is that it departs from grace, moving instead towards law-keeping. This contradicts the consistent message of grace that permeates the entire canon. But despite Von Rad’s claim that there is a “declension from grace into law,”[68] this is not the case. Rather, Deuteronomy “frequently illustrates God’s grace in the election of his people.”[69]

4.5 Impact on Christian Life and Ministry Today

How does all of this impact on the Christian life and ministry today? Enormously, because it is a picture of both the graciousness and holiness of God. As Christians, we enter the Ultimate Promised Land[70] in the same way that the Israelites entered the land in Deuteronomy: through God’s undeserved mercy. It is a gift, freely given. When we read Deuteronomy and are reminded of both God’s graciousness and the commands to obey,[71] our hearts should leap for joy, knowing that we worship the same gracious God. But the commands to the Israelites remind us that God is holy and expects obedience. And so, out of gratitude for His mercy, we must strive to obey: not because it earns us salvation, but because we know what God has done for us. And then when we fail – because we will fail, just as the Israelites did in the land – we rest assured in the fact that Christ has achieved the obedience that we need. Because that is the wonderful message of the Christian gospel: there is one who has obeyed perfectly for us, because we cannot.


In Deuteronomy there are elements of the land seeming to be both a gift freely given, and a reward earned through obedience. At first the two ideas may seem contradictory. But when explored fully seen in the light of key verses such as Deuteronomy 9:4-6, it seems clear that the land is a gift, with the commands for obedience being an outpouring of gratitude for the gift of the land already given. Hence, the land is a freely given gift that should inspire thankful obedience.

  1. Deut. 6:3

  2. Deut. 6:11

  3. Deut. 11:12

  4. Oren R Martin, Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan, 2015, p.81.

  5. Daniel Isaac Block, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), p.40.

  6. Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p.169.

  7. E. A. Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology (3rd Edition ed.; N. Richland Hills, Texas: BIBAL Press, 1998), p.114.

  8. Gerhard von Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (London: SCM Press, 1984), p.90-91.

  9. For example, Deuteronomy 6:18 “that it may go well with you”

  10. Arie C. Leder, Waiting for the Land: The Story Line of the Pentateuch (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 2010), p.180.

  11. Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, p91.

  12. Deuteronomy 1:34-39

  13. More, the reality of a reward!

  14. This is seen particularly strongly in Deuteronomy 31, where God clearly expresses that He knows Israel will rebel and seek foreign Gods.

  15. Deuteronomy 31:21

  16. Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, p.91.

  17. Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, p.91.

  18. This tension between works and grace will be developed and clarified further throughout the rest of this essay.

  19. In fact, the whole of 28:15-68 seems to build on the idea.

  20. George Athas and Paul Barnett, Deuteronomy: One Nation under God, 2016, p.303-304.

  21. Or literally ‘pluck up’ (וְנִסַּחְתֶּם֙)

  22. Derek R. W. Wood (ed.), New Bible Dictionary (3. ed ed.; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), p964.

  23. John D Currid, A Study Commentary on Deuteronomy (Darlington, England; Webster, N.Y.: Evangelical Press, 2006), p.449.

  24. J.G. McConville, ‘Book of Deuteronomy’, in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (eds. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker; Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p.489.

  25. McConville, “Book of Deuteronomy,” p.489.

  26. Seen in particularly in Deuteronomy 1:19-46

  27. Ajith Fernando, Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God (Preaching the Word; Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), p.41-42.

  28. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land, p81.

  29. Or removed due to a lack of merit.

  30. Or lack of obedience.

  31. Both in regards to them possessing and keeping the land, and to them prospering in the land.

  32. For example, Deuteronomy 1:8, 25; 2:29; 6:10-15; 17:14; 31:7 and 34:4

  33. Norman C. Habel, The Land Is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p.39.

  34. Allan M Harman, Commentary on Deuteronomy (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), p.16.

  35. Walter C Jr Kaiser, ‘The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View’, Bibliotheca sacra 138/552 (October 1981): p.305.

  36. Patrick D Miller, ‘Gift of God: Deuteronomic Theology of the Land’, Interpretation 23/4 (October 1969): p.454.

  37. Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (2nd ed ed.; Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), p.45.

  38. נַחֲלָֽה

  39. McConville, “Book of Deuteronomy,” p.489.

  40. Where the Levitical Priests will not have any land as their inheritance. The implication from this is that the land is to be an inheritance for the other tribes.

  41. Ian Cairns, Word and Presence: A Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy (International Theological Commentary; Grand Rapids, Mich. : Edinburgh: W.B. Eerdmans ; Handsel Press, 1992), 55.

  42. Edward J Woods, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2011), p.72.

  43. Deuteronomy 9:6

  44. Deuteronomy 31:16

  45. Indeed, in spite of their lack of faithfulness!

  46. Albeit a gift given with certain expectations, which lead to prosperity in the land. This idea will be explored in the Verdict section of this essay.

  47. Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy (The New American Commentary v. 4; Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 190.

  48. Deuteronomy 9:4

  49. Deuteronomy 9:6

  50. Deuteronomy 4:6

  51. Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Great Britain: SCM Press, 1966), 74.

  52. Frank E Gaebelein and Earl Kalland, ‘Deuteronomy’, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1976), 78.

  53. Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, p.91.

  54. Seen particularly here in verse 5, where God reminds them of His promise to their forefathers.

  55. Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1994), p.104.

  56. Kaiser, “The Promised Land,” p.302.

  57. Deuteronomy 31 is particularly strong in showing that God knows that Israel will rebel.

  58. With them being removed from the land

  59. Deuteronomy 6:3

  60. Deuteronomy 6:3

  61. The passage is filled with God’s commands for obedience in the land

  62. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land, p.82.

  63. J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), p.61.

  64. Millar, Now Choose Life, p.61.

  65. Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, p.91.

  66. Among other passages.

  67. John A Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Comm. (Leicester, England u.a.: Inter-Varsity Pr., 1987), p.14.

  68. Rad, The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, p.91.

  69. Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy: Not by Bread Alone (The Bible Speaks Today; Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), p.24.

  70. Heaven. See passages such as Revelation 21:1 and 2 Peter 3:13

  71. And the fact that the Israelites did not.

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